Monday, April 2, 2018

Reviving Christianity: A Review of Prophets in our Midst by David T. Johnston

Cover of David Johnston's Book
What caught my immediate attention of David T. Johnston’s book Prophets in our Midst: Jung, Tolkien, Gebser, Sri Aurobindo and The Mother were two aspects of its title: one that it was about prophets and, more importantly, that it specifically mentioned Carl Gustav Jung. Now I may have already in my first paragraph alienated those who believe and follow gurus as well as all those who have their hearts set on the fantastical worlds created by the author of the immensely popular The Lord of the Rings series.

But I must confess that I have (had?) little personal interest in either of the two aforementioned. I have come to see most gurus (I do keep an exceptional clause or small window open for the possibility of authentic ones) as, if not outright frauds, then people with fraudulent tendencies. Part of this stems from my suspicion towards those who claim to have the answers and all of this has a rather claustrophobic cult feel to it. Many so-called gurus have been unmasked and many soi-disant spiritual leaders defrauded by having their motives exposed en masse, be it that they were merely driven by a greedy and ambitious quest for control, power or money or all of the above.

My second hesitation regarding embracing Tolkien is more a matter of personal taste. I am not a fan of fantasy (sorry I don’t like Star Wars either), mainly because I do not clearly see its relation to the real world and hence it has little interest to me. Also, works of the genre are often embedded in and burdened with shallow characters and then lose any artistic or literary merit they could have had. Yet if it may come as a slight solace for the reader, Johnston manages to challenge (some of) my assumptions and may have shown me that I was somewhat hasty in my quick pronouncements.

Let us start with my main point of agreement, however: The importance of Jung and his insights into the human psyche and our relation to the world. Recently, I have been interested in psychoanalysis and Freud’s theories and techniques have helped me uncover and discover certain psychological issues and tendencies; Freud’s theories have helped me diminish and, in some cases, even eliminate main sources of anxiety and this has led me to a much healthier sense of well-being and identity. Hence, I was all ears to approach his major disciple Carl Gustav Jung who eventually fell out with the great founder and father of psychoanalysis.

As Johnston points out Jung’s approach to therapy involves individuation, which entails the quest for one’s unique path towards becoming whole. That could be achieved by identifying with the Self, the cultural and spiritual archetype of the center of the psyche that is connected with our collective past and, even beyond that, with infinity. Yet that would occur only with acceptance of all aspects of the self, including both good and evil as well as the abolition of the limited and limiting conscious ego, the often arrogant and nagging voice of know-it-all droning inside our heads.

According to Johnston, in these troubled and troubling times, it is necessary for us to undergo a cultural renewal and that this is both a challenge but even more a new opportunity to attain higher spiritual levels. Using Jung as a blueprint, the author synchronizes and amalgamates certain aspects of Hindu philosophy represented by Sri Aurobindo and The Mother as well as theories by Swiss philosopher, linguist and poet Jean Gebser (although he comes up rather short in this collection of essays) and, more abundantly, the creative works of Tolkien.

What all of them have in common is the quest for a prophet as a guiding voice and light towards becoming a fuller and more authentic being in a world that seems to bury us in an artificial world of technological prowess, hence robbing us of our uniqueness and spirituality. At various times, Johnston reiterates that the current post-modern world we inhabit is one-dimensional and center-less and that it is fomenting narcissistic desires and behaviors while blocking access to the deeper and more profound recesses of our selves, namely the Cosmic Self as described by the different thinkers / prophets discussed in this book.

Both Tolkien and Jung present the Christian paths of reaching that higher spiritual stage, yet they also remind us that we ought to revise Christianity in order to be able to do so. Essential to this view is the necessity of free will, which can lead to the right path, yet it can also lead us to inferior moral choices including the propensity for committing evil acts. These types of choices are illustrated and embodied in Tolkien’s magnum opus The Lord of the Rings.

One of the shortcomings of the mainstream and traditional Christian view lies in its conception of polar opposites, such as good and evil. Yet according to these thinkers, in reality, it ought to reflect a more harmonious whole, where both sides are acknowledged within the same structure, not unlike the yin and yang of Taoism and where the Self is not bound by dogmatic and rigid views on morality.

Put differently, we need a creative synthesis, a combination of parts of both, something Sri Aurobindo refers to as the psychic being, the incarnated soul, while Jung names this a new way to fulfillment and wholeness of one’s personality, represented in Jung’s creation myth as the Transcendent One. 

This understanding of divinity would include both the god Eros and the goddess Logos that reside in our respective unconscious and they represent both masculine and feminine aspects of the Self. They ought to be embraced and allowed to co-exist in equal measure as a harmonious and complementary whole.

To give an example, Christianity is ruled by the Holy Trinity, hence the number three being its symbolic expression. They are the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. And, in fact, they are all conspicuously male. However, the dove, a symbol used for the Holy Spirit, is generally female. 

In Gnostic tradition, the Holy Spirit was viewed not only as feminine but also as the embodiment of Sophia, the carrier of the Word and divine wisdom. Yet these symbols include and reflect also the other part in its kaleidoscopic and androgynous intrinsic self. The dove may be outwardly feminine but inside it is masculine and represents conscious thought as well as messages from the spiritual realm.

Similarly, the serpent is outwardly masculine and phallic, but includes feminine receptivity towards desire. In fact, in Gnostic tradition, the serpent is seen both as wild beast and holy counselor, a relevant and indispensable symbol of wisdom. 

The problem with traditional Christianity is then twofold. On one part, it is the denial of feminine qualities (with the possible exception of the Catholic view of the Virgin Mary that provides a subsequent injection of femininity) and on the other hand, it is the repression of the darker parts of one’s being. However, to become whole, one should not repress (which only complicates and aggravates matters) but rather accept and then liberate the darker side of one’s psyche.

According to Sri Aurobindo, the numerical symbol of the harmonious self or the Truth-mind is not the trinity represented by the triangle, but rather the square that is fourfold in nature not unlike the Hebrew Tetragrammaton or the Tetrad of Pythagoras. The number four as a sign of wholeness or complete being can be encountered in various parts of life. 

There are the four gospels, the four elements of the Earth, the four cardinal virtues of the Middle Ages as prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance, the four ages that reflect human evolution as well as four types of consciousness, namely thinking, feeling, sensation and intuition. For instance, Tolkien embodies these aspects in the four hobbits that enter their heroic quest as priest, leader, trader and servant. Each one demonstrates a part of an archetype that needs to be individualized to reach its fullest potential and expression. 

One of the main strengths of Tolkien’s creative world is that he enriches Christianity with what were usually viewed as pagan elements but are indeed much needed and neglected archetypes. These forms and images are much more persuasive than arguments and reasons, which is why Tolkien’s works have struck a chord in the souls of many people as they can relate to them from a deeper psychological core of themselves. 

Jung himself believes that a life without archetypes of the collective unconscious is lacking while a richer and fuller life is not possible without those symbols. This may also be the reason why people are so responsive to legends and myths because they point towards a more transcendent truth, a world and reality beyond that of bare and cold facts that general science represents and espouses (with the notable exception of quantum physics).

And yet Christianity itself is not averse to myth. Tolkien based his fundamental design of The Lord of the Rings on the life and resurrection of Christ; Tolkien considered this oeuvre not only to be a religious and even a Catholic work, but he based it on the “True Myth” of the death and resurrection of Christ, as a fully embodied and divine being both on Earth and in Heaven. Along a similar vein, the Ring itself becomes a union of opposites and serves as a symbol for the higher and individuated Self also aided by the symbols of fire and gold as force and durability.

One of the problems with the Christian religion is in fact its defense system and paranoia against evil. By rejecting the shadow self within and by being obsessed with purity, innocence and the potential threat of sin, Christians end up projecting their own darkness onto others. As such, they rarely manage to work out their own desires and instead choose to repress them. As we know, repression is not a reliable solution to problems and issues; those hidden desires are just stacked up in the unconscious and are ready to erupt in unexpected and often shocking ways.

In fact, Jung draws sharp distinctions between religion versus creed and belief. The latter is a community that is built around specialized and specific forms of thought and behavior and it thrives on dogma, rituals and traditions, all of which are there to supposedly protect its adherents from evil, but they only manage to alienate them further from their true and authentic selves.

On the other hand, religion as a form of individuation is divine and is a direct experience of the archetypal psyche known as the numinosum. This Self is not bound by traditional thinking or dogma but has been paved along the way by acceptance and self-discovery. It is beyond good and evil because it embraces and accepts both in perfect harmony. That does not mean that these people are prone to evil acts or that they lack morality, but quite the opposite; they are more forceful in their actions and demonstrate peace and balance along the way because they do not have to look behind their shoulders for a malignant presence or influences at every crossroad.

As a matter of fact, Jesus himself said not to resist evil. This seems rather contradictory to traditional ways of understanding Christianity but seen from Jung’s perspective, it makes perfect sense. One should not resist the shadow self but rather learn to control it by accepting some of its qualities while rejecting others. As such, this is a matter of personal moral discernment leading to a creative and transcendent synthesis. We can then harness and use this energy not only for the good of ourselves but expand it for the benefit of all of humanity.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

The Toxic Narratives of Slavery and Gun Ownership in the United States

Image of black slaves being mistreated
Narratives are not only the stories we tell ourselves and others, but they also comprise stories that are built and construed around the existence and development of countries and nations. Narratives are powerful themes that often define us and highlight our relationship with others, including our identification with our respective cultures and nationalities.

As we are continuously surrounded and, in some cases, even bombarded with certain narrative strains and trends, we come to not only accept and embrace them but often identify with them without thinking. This can be problematic in various instances.

Narratives take place in various forms and dimensions and have different effects on its proponents and recipients, but I shall focus or limit my views here merely on the nation known as the United States. Since the citizens in the early days of this nation had to contend with constant fear of their safety, certain strains of narratives took hold and cast a spell on them and led them down a path quite different from citizens of other nations.

Historically, the United States had to fend off its territories and would fight against its original inhabitants, the indigenous people. In such cases, there loomed the constant threat of potential attacks from Red Indians onto the newly established settlements.

Furthermore, to have, refine and even redefine their own national identity and independence, the settlers also had to fight against British rule through the American revolution and hence create their own separate and distinguishable identity. This double threat of original inhabitants and controlling colonizers made it important for the settlers to ensure not only that their freedom was guaranteed and intact but also to propagate the ability to protect themselves against any kinds of threats to their lives and ideology.

In fact, to accept and face and deal with the brutality of the Wild West, there were two narratives that needed to be reinforced as a nation to bind and unite its citizens.

The first one I simply call the cowboy mentality. In fact, this is essentially an Us versus Them approach to daily life. Yet beneath this approach lies the juxtaposition and the implicit ideology of good versus evil. Put differently, the settlers used morality as a means to justify the usurpation of the land and the slaying of the indigenous people. Since the pioneers regarded themselves as more civilized and, ipso facto, morally superior, they believed that their actions were right and guided and approved by divine forces.

Politically, this ideology has also continued and is known as the manifest destiny of the United States that - at least in the eyes of its own citizens - makes even objectionable and questionable actions morally right.

The cowboys then are regarded as good and pure and as upholders of the faith, whereas others – be they Indians, communists or terrorists - were assigned indiscriminately to the THEM bulk, that is, they were immediately and automatically stapled as threats to their ideology and, by extension, the American way of life. This is also the moral backbone and justification for the fact that the United States often acts as a police state and takes the liberty to interfere globally while aiming to ensure that their own needs and interests are met.

This would also explain the penchant for celebrities and presidents who espouse such sweeping views, be it John Wayne or President Ronald Reagan (an ex-actor who played cowboys as well), both seen as prototypes of American stamina or even the current sitting president Donald Trump who uses rhetoric of harsh force and retaliation mirroring the language of Gung-ho cowboys.

Yet the narrative of moral superiority has led to various dangerous and morally ambiguous interpretations, among them the existence and practice of slavery. This is due to a misconceived and downright racist view of African people, which allowed slavery not only to exist in the first place but to actually thrive and flourish in the United States; in fact, worse, slavery endured even when and long after other nations around the world had abolished its practice.

Although racism against black people is and has been prevalent all around the world, it was never as pronounced as in the United States. For example, Europeans were no less racist in thought and attitude, but this was not as systematic nor as vicious as in the land of the free, the land of the white settlers. Segregation in its systematic form did not exist as strictly and as vehemently, with the noted exception of the Apartheid system in South Africa.

A hatred that was so strong and even led to lynching and mob attacks against black people had always disturbed and puzzled me. How was it possible for these ordinary citizens to hate black people so sweepingly and fervently, not unlike the ways the Nazis hated the Jews? Yet the documentary Not Your Negro shed some light onto the issue. I realized that it was because of the toxic narrative of supposed moral righteousness and superiority that not only brought into being (and supposedly justified) the existence of slavery but also ensured its endurance and continuity.

The underlying problem with such narratives is that they do not go away on their own. Despite the fact of slavery being officially outlawed, the idea of it continued to remain and fester in the minds of many Americans. How else could you justify the fact that it was illegal to have a mixed marriage until 1967, let alone, recent racist acts and attacks of the police force on members of the black community!

None of this was based on economic benefits anymore. It is an often underplayed fact that the booming cotton industry brought wealth to the nation thanks to the free labor of the slaves, but long after, the narrative of slavery still lingered and was so entrenched in the fixed minds of many white Americans that black people continued to suffer throughout the years (and even up to modern days) regardless of being officially and legally liberated from the yokes of slavery; unconsciously, they are seen - and in some cases even tend to see themselves - as continuous victims of slavery.

Slavery does not only create and propagate deep trauma, it takes away and drains all human rights and dignity from black people. According to the misguided and lingering narrative of slavery, black people are nothing but objects. And objects have no souls, no dignity and are easily used, abused and disposed of. These have been the deep wounds and scars that the practice of slavery has left on black people, which has been passed on from generation to generation.

Although I applaud the noble intentions of shows and movies like Roots and 12 Years a Slave to bring and dig up the tremendous amount of pain and suffering that the practice of slavery has caused on people from the black race, I also find it troubling that these ideas would inadvertently be primed in the minds of many people; certain white people would continue their racist ideology based on these attitudes, while black people might unconsciously espouse the views of being victims and identify themselves with the troubled past of their ancestors. 

The second main narrative of the United States has to do with the Second Amendment to which many hold onto fervently and feverishly. This was regarded as a sign of freedom particularly in the days of the settlers. Yet it was perhaps less a sign of freedom but an issue of practical use as the possession of firearms ensured that settlers could fend off enemies.

The enemies included not only Indians but also fellow settlers. Even one’s property had to be defended against with acts of violence in those early days where chaos still reigned in the towns, while law and order needed yet to be firmly established. The roads were dangerous and for safe travel it was necessary to have guns and rifles to protect against robbers and bandits.

All this was seen as a necessity for life and was less a matter of freedom. Guns – and we are talking about rifles and revolvers of the past not automatic weapons - provided protection and could also be used as a form of rebellion against undermining and unjust government control. By ensuring that each citizen had their own gun, it made it difficult for totalitarian regimes to take over or for the British to take back their colony, for instance.

Personally, I have never equated ownership of guns with freedom or safety, but I see it as a dangerous form of enslavement. In my view, life without any weapons would be the most ideal solution. Arming its citizens against others would only create a more dangerous and volatile environment the same way the nuclear race of nations will not make us any safer, but rather quite to the contrary.

A society that is based on empathy and that does not condone violence is the best manner of ensuring safety. The symbols of violence must be eradicated to the best of our means and I strongly oppose educators to carry weapons because it would inadvertently or symbolically promote violence. We need to be receptive towards others and more importantly accept them and not isolate or segregate. If anything, history brings us face to face with our mistakes, but now is the time to make amends with others and with our own troubled and violent past.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Why I Heart Logotherapy: Thoughts on Viktor Frankl's Book and Theory

Blue Book Cover of Frankl's work
Although I have been intrigued by psychology for various years and have studied it academically, it was only about three years ago when I first encountered logotherapy. Yet Viktor Frankl’s theory turns out to be the most fascinating and effective form of therapy.

Hearing Alfried Längle, the main voice and spokesperson of current logotherapy practice, talk about his views on various topics and issues has been both a constant source of pleasure as well as a learning experience for me. I was so impressed by his lectures that I finally decided to read the quintessential work Man’s Search for Meaning by the founder of logotherapy Viktor E. Frankl.

Logotherapy, as the English title of the book underscores, is about finding personal meaning in one’s life. This form of therapy is surprisingly open-minded and open-ended as it is not limited or restricted by specific dogma. There are no pre-conceived sets of meaning and no right answers.

While psychoanalysis as a form of depth psychology is focused on digging up the past to make sense of the present and thereby manages to shed light upon the present states and formation of neurosis, logotherapy is more interested in ensuring that the person finds meaning in their lives both in the present and beyond.

As Frankl himself states, this can be achieved via three different means:

a) One can find meaning and vocation by a work or by doing a deed. This may be having a job that fulfills our sense of mission in life or be a spokesperson or activist regarding an issue that is close to our heart.

b) One can experience something or encounter someone that has deep meaning to the individual. This can be profound experiences ranging from religious beliefs and convictions to falling in love with someone special and unique. It can also be having and being devoted to a family one loves and supports with all one’s heart.  

c) One can find meaning by one’s attitude towards unavoidable suffering. In this case, one encounters suffering but instead of resigning and giving up or escaping it through different protective mechanisms, such as substance abuse or avoidance, one decides to face the suffering head-on.

Now of course, Frankl makes it clear that one should not seek out suffering per se since that would be merely masochistic. But if one is faced with intense suffering, one should retain personal responsibility and not lose sight of one’s freedom and will in the process.

Considering Frankl’s own harrowing and unspeakable personal suffering as a prisoner at concentration camps and his loss of various friends and family members, all of which is detailed in the first half of the book, this viewpoint becomes much more poignant and relevant.

Frankl himself claims that even in the most abject and horrendous of conditions, one has control over one’s attitude towards the situation. There are parts of our lives we cannot control. Life or fate may deal us bad cards, but whatever this may be, one needs to face those challenges directly and not let them distort or affect one’s personal responsibility and freedom of choice.

This may sound quite stoic in nature, but I think he takes it a step further though. When Frankl was facing the worst of human nature, he claimed that many gave up and either committed suicide or allowed their bodies and minds be ravaged by disease and death.

There were far too many who were not given a choice at all as they were killed, but even then, there was a manner of facing their imminent deaths that would make them beyond heroic as they “entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael” on their lips. In other words, although by all accounts and purposes, their death would seem futile and in vain, some would still find a sense of meaning in their unfortunate lives and their ensuing deaths.

As I was reading Frankl’s account, I was reminded of what Nelson Mandela had once said regarding his sense of freedom. Mandela claimed that although they could physically lock him up and even torture him, there was a part of him that the oppressors could never reach or alter, the feeling of freedom and justice he carried deep inside, his personal convictions.

It is easier said than done and rather idealistic one could say. Others state and have even demonstrated that one is shaped by one’s environment and that such atrocious conditions only breed hatred and contempt and bring out the worst in human nature as evidenced in studies in social psychology by Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo.

And in many or most cases, this may be true. But the fact that there are exceptions shows that it is at least possible that humanity has a core that is unconditionally good and even untouched by and above the worst of external circumstances.

It is within this context of personal experience that logotherapy gains its weight and impact. Frankl says that in such a desolate and godforsaken place, there were still glimmers of hope and decency. It was especially in the direst of situations where the value and importance of art and natural beauty came to the forefront.

According to Frankl and contrary to common sense and knowledge, those who appear physically the strongest were usually the ones to give up first, while those who seemed frail and weak were more likely to survive those harsh conditions. The latter despite their appearance tended to have a richer inner life.

The dreamers, those with a rich imagination, had recourse to an inner world filled with images, sensations and vivid memories from the past and this fostered them with a sense of hope making them capable of resisting and surviving the hideous reality in front of their eyes. This strength of imagination aligned with a strong purpose in life helped many of them get through the worst kinds of suffering and to see past and through the injustices occurring to them on a moment-to-moment basis.

Moreover, Frankl makes a point of distinguishing between personal and collective guilt. In fact, Frankl claims that there are essentially two categories of people; those who were decent and those who were not. There were many people committing atrocities in the concentration camps, but there were also some who were trying to help as best as they could.

There were some commanding officers who went out of their way and even risked their lives to provide medication for the prisoners; at the same time, there were those dreaded Capos, prisoners themselves who for a bit of privilege in the form of extra rations of bread or cigarettes mistreated and abused their fellow inmates.

What it comes down to, and this is a general and dangerous fallacy, one should not collectively blame groups of people. This is a dangerous source of prejudice and racism. Whatever wrong your ancestors have done should not automatically reflect on yourself. Everyone should deal with their own personal guilt, meaning one’s misguided actions that were within one’s grasp and control.

However, even in that case, there may be at times accentuating circumstances where one wished to help people in plight but was afraid of risking one’s own life. In that sense, action would have indeed been heroic and rare, since most of us would choose safety over risk and danger.

That is not to say that there are no evil people in the world. One only needs to turn on the news to see atrocities occurring everywhere. One will encounter people with evil schemes and intention anywhere and may be even wronged and harmed by some of them on different occasions, but most of these people may be acting so because they carry an existential vacuum deep inside of them.

In fact, people who have a strong sense of responsibility towards themselves will generally not act irresponsibly towards others. In most cases, those who hurt have been or are hurt themselves in one way or another. This is quite apparent in recent studies of bullying, where the bullies often vie for social approval or rebel against pain and suffering they endure or have been enduring.

But logotherapy sees a remedy for it all. The first step would be to take control and responsibility of one’s actions. That of course presupposes a belief in free will and although psychotherapists in this field are aware of biological / genetic constraints and restrictions, they still believe in moral freedom and choice. There is a voice of conscience in every individual, no matter how small or neglected it may be.

This, in turn, makes logotherapy optimistic but not naïve. It is optimistic because it believes that any person is capable of change for the better, including criminals and evil-doers. But that decision must come from and be made by the individual themselves since no one can make you better except you yourself. Without that will and intention, any intervention or therapy would be futile. No matter how much we want to help people we care about, it won’t happen until they seek help themselves or are ready to be helped.

Logotherapy also does not take a rosy-colored view on human nature. It took Frankl to see the worst in human nature to also appreciate its best. All it comes down to is personal choice. His mission as a psychotherapist is not to provide you or fill your life with meaning but to help you define and find your own sense of meaning.

One can sense the existential influence here in that there is no clear-cut answer or set meaning to our lives. One must both define oneself and find one’s vocation and place in life. Once one finds balance and does what one is meant to do, then one has peace of mind.

For those confronted with tragedy, it would take a strong shift in will to turn it into something positive. We see it with people who accept their personal suffering and triumph by transcending it and turning it into a work of art, an exemplary life or a life filled with fruitful deeds. As such, Frankl turned his own traumatic past experiences into a beautiful and transcending form of psychotherapy.